Eric Gray vs. Missouri

Tennessee running back Eric Gray (3) runs the ball while defended by Missouri safety Tyree Gillespie (9), for a touchdown during the second quarter of a game between Tennessee and Missouri at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.

Tennessee won its home opener Saturday afternoon, coming back to Neyland to keep its winning streak with a win over Missouri.

Let’s see how the Vols graded out.

Quarterback

Jarrett Guarantano was once again the starter, and his plays featured much better accuracy from the senior, as he struggled with overthrows and off target balls early in the game. The action through the air started early, when on the first drive, Guarantano completed a long pass to freshman Jalin Hyatt to get the momentum going in the right direction.

Guarantano would finish the game 14/23 with 190 yards and a touchdown through the air. However, Guarantano made good use of his feet to convert fourth downs throughout the game. On four occasions, Tennessee was faced with fourth and one, and every time, Guarantano was able convert on the quarterback sneak. One of those fourth down conversations came with a touchdown, as well as another rushing touchdown that came on first down.

Guarantano was also able use his legs to get first downs on multiple other occasions throughout the matchup.

Grade: B+

Running backs

Three running backs, Ty Chandler, Eric Gray and Jabari Small, saw the field Saturday afternoon, but it was Chandler and Gray had the lion’s share of the carries. As a unit, they did not have single rushing attempt that went for a loss.

Gray was the more productive of the duo this weekend, racking up 105 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, with another score through the air. Gray had two rushes for 20 or more yards, one that found the end zone and one that went to the 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown a few plays later.

Chandler also had a solid day, gaining 90 yards and a touchdown in 19 rushing attempts. His long of the day came in the second quarter, when he broke it for 21 yards. He also caught three balls for 13 yards in the air.

Small made his Tennessee debut this weekend, rushing for 27 yards on four attempts, with the longest gain coming on his first ever run for the Big Orange, good for 15 yards.

Grade: A

Receivers and tight ends

For the second week in a row, the wide receiver cops contributed by committee, with six receivers being targeted in the game.

Josh Palmer, the one returning starter at the receiver position, led the way for Tennessee with four catches that went for 71 total yards. Behind him, fifth-year senior Brandon Johnson finished the game with 17 yards on three catches.

Velus Jones Jr. caught the one ball that was thrown his way for 22 yards, while Ramel Keyton was targeted twice, but could not pull in either reception.

Princeton Fant also went without a catch, receiving one target but putting on a solid blocking performance and drawing a key penalty that extended the drive.

Jalin Hyatt, a freshman, hauled in two passes — one for a 36-yard gain early in the game and the second went for 18 yards later in the game.

No one player really stood out, but the unit as a whole provided a solid performance and helped open up the defense for when the Vols tried to run the ball, as well as providing a couple big splash plays.

Grade: B+

Offensive line

Tennessee’s offensive line unit stood out as the strongest to many people and continues to with the play up front this past Saturday.

This showed through the gains that Tennessee was able to make in the passing game — especially the running game. Throughout the game, the offensive line did a decent job only allowing two sacks, but they did allow too many hits to the quarterback according to Jeremy Pruitt.

On the rushing side, the TVA, as the offensive lineman have nicknamed themselves, were able to move Missouri off the ball and open up gaps for running lanes. This is evident by the high conversion rate for fourth down and short-yardage situations. So much of the success during those plays were because the offensive linemen were able to get leverage and push people around.

Grade: A

Defensive line

Tennessee’s defensive line was decent on Saturday, not wowing spectators but putting in a solid performance among the three positions.

Elijah Simmons helped the start in the center to have a solid performance until he left with an injury late in the contest. On his outside, Matthew Butler and LaTrell Bumphus, the other two defensive line starters, both had three-tackle games. Bumphus also added a quarterback hurry.

Adding to the defensive line unit was Omari Thomas who also finished with two tackles, one for a loss.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Linebacker was a strong suit for Tennessee on Saturday, but they fell short of their performance last week against the Gamecocks. Leading the unit is preseason All-SEC team member Henry To’o To’o, who occupies the Will linebacker slot. To’o To’o finished the day with six tackles, one of which went for a loss.

Beside To’o To’o, Jeremy Banks and Quavaris Crouch rotated the Mike position. The pair combined for seven total tackles, and Crouch nearly had an interception at one point towards the end of the game.

Deandre Johnson had two solo-tackles, a sack and hurry from the outside linebacker position on the weak side of the formation.

Kivon Bennett finished with a total of three tackles, and he also recorded a quarterback hurry.

Tennessee’s linebackers had a tough task containing Missouri’s duo of Shawn Robinson and Larry Rountree III, and while the stats don’t jump off the paper, they were able to do a solid job securing the middle of the defense.

Grade: B+

Secondary 1470 1525

Safety Trevon Flowers finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, registering 10 tackles, one of which were for a loss.

Jaylen McCollough and Theo Jackson had a full week of practice before the game and it showed in their play. McCollough was the team’s third highest tackler, and Theo Jackson stepped in the nickel position, even registering an interception that proved to be a large piece in the Vols locking up the win late in the contest.

Alontae Taylor played a solid game on the outside and did a good job of controlling his side of the field. Bryce Thompson got banged up this past week in practice and as such, saw limited playing time against the Tigers.

Grade: B

Special teams

Brent Cimaglia was perfect on his extra points, nailing all five tries, but he missed his one attempt at three points. This was a rare miss for the Tennessee-native, as the attempt came just over 30 yards.

Joe Doyle had no trouble with snap and provided Cimaglia with six perfect holds.

Paxton Brooks only had two punts, and he managed to get one inside the 20-yard line, but he had a costly kickoff that went out of bounds.

Matthew Salansky did a decent job at long snapper, but performances like that can be more damaging once the Vols face teams with better punt block units.

Despite receiving multiple punts, Tennessee did not return a single kick or punt.

Grade: A-

Coaching

The Vols played their game very well and didn’t try to do things they don’t have the personnel to do. Pruitt coached a very strong game on defense, and Jim Cheney didn’t get too pass happy to the detriment of the team.

Grade: A

Overall

The Vols obviously had some mistakes this weekend, but they never made any huge game-turning errors. They executed plays well.

Ultimately, what this game showed was Tennessee’s ability to close out a game and take care of a team they know they should beat. If they intend to be the caliber of team they want be, they must consistently beat the Missouris and Kentuckys before they can beat the Georgias and Alabamas of the world.

Building on the best start of the Jeremy Pruitt era, the Vols are 2-0 with a chance to prove their worth against Georgia next Saturday.

Grade: A

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